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RI lawmakers give early approval to bill allowing voters to elect US Senate replacements

Ray Henry // Published March 18, 2009 in The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. —

Rhode Islanders would elect their U.S. senators when an incumbent dies or leaves office unexpectedly under proposals that have gained new life since the controversy over President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.

A bill that got initial approval Tuesday would strip Gov. Don Carcieri and his successors of the power to appoint interim senators until the next general election, which happen every two years. Instead, voters would select a replacement at the next general election or a specially called one.

Lawmakers in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Connecticut, Colorado and New York have introduced similar bills. Although vacant House seats are always filled by special election, 38 states allows governors to appoint temporary replacements in the Senate.

State Sen. Paul Jabour, a bill sponsor, said the public places greater trust in leaders who are elected than those appointed through a process that can be tainted by cronyism or corruption. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his legislation by a 6-1 vote Tuesday afternoon, meaning it is headed for a full vote on the Senate floor. House lawmakers have already approved a similar version.

"You take away that aura of backroom dealing," Jabour said. "Whether it's Wall Street, General Motors or the General Assembly, people want to know that things are out in the front."

Lawmakers in Rhode Island first debated the issue last year, amid speculation that Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat, could become Obama's running mate or be selected for a cabinet post.

If Reed had left the Senate, his replacement would have been chosen by the Republican governor, a jarring prospect for Democratic leaders in one of the bluest states in the nation.

The proposal died of inaction last year, but it gained new life in December when then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on federal charges that he tried to profit from naming Obama's successor in Congress.

But Carcieri, whose office dubs the legislation the "Blago Bill," said special elections are unnecessary and infrequent.

In 1949, Gov. John Pastore appointed Edward Leahy to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Howard McGrath, who became U.S. Attorney General. It was a self-serving move. Leahy didn't run for re-election, and Pastore himself was elected to fill the seat.

Half a century later, Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Republican, selected Warwick Mayor Lincoln Chafee to fill a Senate seat held by Chafee's late father, John.

Holding a statewide Senate election can cost about $1 million, election officials said.

"It's a waste of money to hold a special election, especially when there's nothing wrong with the current process," Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said.

Carcieri has not decided whether he will veto the bill should it pass.